North winds whisk snowflakes across dusky wings skimming black waters in the quickening of December’s darkening days. His flight drums the rough beats of leafless willow, dogwood, and cottonwood limbs bending to the will of gusts. Lifting up his crested head, the belted kingfisher opens a mighty beak and sends a quiver of birdy consonants arrowing down the ice-lined river: “Kkkkkkk…kkkkkk….kkkkk!”

The quickening call emanating from silence circulates warmth into freezing fingers and spins a thread of joy linking bird to river to tree to heart.

This is the time of mythic kingfishers. In the ancient Greek myth, the gods Zeus and Hera turned lovers Halcyon and Ceyx into kingfishers destined to nest annually upon the sea over the winter solstice (December 21st in 2022). Aeolus, god of winds and father of Halcyon, calms the stormy waves for fourteen days, seven on either side of the solstice. Peace. Tranquility. Happiness. Transformation. The moon is a waning crescent. The Halcyon Days are now.

I was stunned by this painting at the Wild Arts Festival in Portland earlier this month–Greek myth of Halcyon Days meets Belted Kingfisher (instead of the Common Kingfisher). The artist is Erika Beyer.

During this interval, I’ve returned to my prior home of Missoula within the homeland of the Salish people and haven of belted kingfishers. Here, I’d followed, observed, lost and found the birds that nest not at sea but deep within earthen vertical streambanks. Here, I’d deepened my relationship with a vibrant community of Rattlesnake Creek–from dipper to mink, bald eagle, bull trout, and caddisfly. Here, I’d found the ways of transformation, from aquatic stonefly nymphs shedding skins to fly above the currents to personal change made possible by repeated immersion in one small wild enclave in this big wide world.

Return to the nest bank on Rattlesnake Creek with Sandra Murphy. Sometimes wintering kingfishers will take shelter in a burrow.

The opening scene is from the Clark Fork River flowing through downtown, where each brief day is a dance of lowering and rising clouds, draping mists, and Ansel Adams-worthy sunlight upon Mt. Sentinel, Mt. Jumbo, and the Rattlesnake Wilderness. There, I’d hoped to glimpse of a male kingfisher as I have so many times before. Most females fly south in winter from Montana–flashing their cinnamony red belts along waterways. Males may gravitate from creeks to larger rivers for ice-free fishing, while remaining vigilant and territorial.

I’d instead witnessed a great blue heron hunched in zen mode waiting for a small fish to dart down a frigid rivulet. And that is the continual lesson of seeking kingfishers as a way to open our senses to the interwoven realm of waters that are lifelines for all. Considering the heron, I contemplate the wisdom of Salish elder Louis Adams (1933-2016) when we’d walked from the University of Montana to the banks of Nmesulétk͏ʷ or “Shimmering Cold Waters” more than a decade ago.

His words resonate especially in these Halcyon Days of finding calm, tranquility, and centering. From my book:

Louis Adams “stood as straight as a pine, his graying hair in two tight braids. A line of horizontal wrinkles across his forehead resembled the geologic layers on Esmoq’ʷ (It’s a Mountain) or Mount Sentinel above us. He spoke with deliberate enunciations and kindness.

He told the story of his grandmother Louise Vanderberg, born near Rattlesnake Creek’s confluence with the river, where his family had come to catch bull trout. The confluence name is Nɫʔaycčstm, meaning Place of Small Bull Trout. Salish speakers use the shortened form of this name—Nɫʔay—for the city of Missoula.

As a child, Louis joined his relatives digging for bitterroots a few miles west on land now covered by a Shopko and parking lot. Each spring, they gathered to pray, give thanks, and dig on the best grounds of all their territories, until development in the 1960s destroyed the abundant native prairies. Each summer, Louis’ grandfather Victor and his companions rode on horseback into what is now the Bob Marshall Wilderness to hunt, fish, dig roots, and pick berries.

“No one was in a rush then, because everywhere was home,” he said.”

Rattlesnake Creek in winter

This morning, I am packing up to drive over mountain passes westward, then southward to the Columbia River, and onward to my other beloved home in Central Oregon, where kingfishers ply the Deschutes River and my sweet Wes waits for me. A big part of my heart will always be in Missoula–home, too, of my son Ian, dear friends who work to protect wild waters and lands, and the place that transformed my relationship with “home.”

In this time of halcyon days, I am especially grateful to Oregon State University Press for publishing Halcyon Journey: In Search of the Belted Kingfisher. When recently, Halcyon Journey earned a 2022 national outdoor book award, I felt humbled, grateful to all who helped along the way, and yes…happy! Whenever I’d faltered in the process of revising my manuscript and seeking publication, I’d remind myself why I had to keep going, and what mattered most. In the last chapter, I wrote of this question and will share the excerpt here as a solstice offering:

“Why does it matter that kingfishers hover and ram banks, carry pebbles in their beaks in courtship, and chase swallows away instead of staying put on eggs for hours? Why care about the meaning of the rare gender reversal of color? What’s the significance of females chasing females, and all the variations of belt size and color I found in the Smithsonian? Why travel afar to sleuth the closest relatives—the ringed kingfishers of the lower Rio Grande and the giant kingfishers of South Africa?

I believe our kinship with all life is at stake. Unless enough of us spend time in the field immersing, noticing, reveling, and wondering, we won’t act in time to save ourselves. We don’t have to be biologists; we only have to be curious.

When it comes to belted kingfishers, their trilling, consonant-rich calls above waterways send a message the Salish people have known since time immemorial. Water is life. Treat wild waters as you would an elder. Listen to their wisdom. Honor the complex web of riparian plants and forests vital to shading, cooling, and nourishing thousands of species converging on these living ribbons of lush green.

I’d come to know the kingfishers on one stretch of a home creek as family. Their well-being mattered in the way of love that is reciprocal, supportive, and essential.”

May you find the peace of wild things in the halcyon days of winter solstice.

Belted Kingfisher male- photo by Ken Miracle
Middle Clark Fork River –in Salish: Shimmering Cold Waters, Nmesulétk͏ʷ

My son Ian on the footbridge over the Clark Fork RiverI’m a very lucky mom.

Painting of a female belted kingfisher in flight by Sheila Dunn